HL Deb 10 July 1997 vol 581 cc727-44

3.36 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Abolition of assisted places scheme in England and Wales]:

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 20, leave out ("1996–97") and insert ("1999–2000").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 1 I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 3, 12, 16, 21, 22, 24 to 26 and 28. As noble Lords heard at Second Reading and as they will know from reading the Bill, this legislation has two primary purposes. The first, set out in the body of the Bill, is the abolition of the assisted places scheme. Although that was part of the Government's manifesto, we believe it to be a nasty little measure based on meanness and envy. The second purpose of the Bill is set out in the explanatory and financial memorandum: it is not dealt with elsewhere in the Bill. The explanatory and financial memorandum states that the Bill's provisions will lead to savings to be spent on reducing infant class sizes in the maintained sector and that those savings will be realised from the 1998–99 financial year onwards.

All parts of the Committee will accept that that is a perfectly admirable aim to pursue, so long as one does not become over-obsessive about the question of class sizes. There are many other measures that are equally important in terms of raising standards in schools, for example, whole class teaching and other ideas which have now been embraced by the new Government. We welcome that Damascene conversion to such methods of teaching. However, because the Bill encompasses the abolition of assisted places and the reduction of class sizes by using the resultant savings it is important that we should explore those issues. The Government have to explain just how the savings will be made and exactly what they amount to. That is the purpose of the amendments.

I assure the noble Baroness that at this stage I have no intention of pressing this particular group of amendments. The noble Baroness would be very near to being right in saying, if I wished to press the amendments, that they were wrecking amendments and would delay the purposes of the Bill for some two years. At this stage I seek further explanation of what the savings will be and how they will be made. Obviously, the Minister's answers will very much influence the decisions that we must take at later stages in the passage of the Bill through the House.

I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Skidelsky is unable to be here today. He sends his apologies. Sadly, he is in Cambridge, not in Hyde Park as some of us were this morning. Noble Lords who attended the Second Reading debate or who have read the report of it will be aware that my noble friend made a very powerful case on the very question of the costs and savings. Quite clearly and very simply, he rejected the claims of the Government that additional pupils could be accommodated at no extra cost to the Government.

At Second Reading the noble Baroness rightly claimed that the reduction in the number of pupils taking up offers under the assisted places scheme, and therefore the small increase in numbers going into the maintained sector, would place no extra burden on the maintained sector. Noble Lords were informed that there were some 800,000 surplus places and that the absorption of the small number of extra pupils would not place any burden on the maintained sector. However, as my noble friend correctly pointed out, the figure of 800,000 surplus places is simply irrelevant to the arguments that we have to address today. As my noble friend said—and it is important for the Committee to remember this—schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. Therefore, we have to recognise that much of the cost allegedly saved by pupils no longer being able to go into the assisted places scheme would not be clawed back. As my noble friend said, the average cost of an assisted place is some £3,900 and the average cost of a maintained place is about £2,700. That cost is a very real one because, as was mentioned at the time, schools are funded on a per-pupil basis.

If we take those crude figures as they are, we see that the difference between the two is some £1,200. As my noble friend put it, if one takes that net saving of £1,200 and multiples it by the number of pupils who would no longer be eligible for the assisted places scheme, by the end of the third year we have savings merely of some £28 million. That is way, way short of the £100 million that the noble Baroness and her right honourable and honourable friends have been quoting in another place and simply does not provide enough money to pay for the reduction in class sizes that is claimed to be one of the Bill's purposes.

In using those figures, my noble friend was painting what amounts to, as he put it, a particularly rosy picture from the Government's point of view. My noble friend very sensibly pointed out that no account had been taken of the fact that 9,000 assisted places are in sixth forms where, obviously, the costs are somewhat greater; in other words, the saving is somewhat smaller. Moreover, no account is taken of the capital costs of the pupils in the assisted places scheme. The capital costs for the independent sector must come out of the £3,900 figure relating to the average cost of an assisted place that I quoted. I can tell the noble Baroness that, on average, the independent sector estimates that it spends something in the order of £550 per pupil. Again, that is a figure which would be taken off the net savings that I quoted of £1,200 which brings down the £28 million probably by a matter of some 50 per cent., leaving it at a mere £14 million.

To be fair, since Second Reading the noble Baroness has written to my noble friend and copied the letter to me. In that letter of 3rd July she makes further claims about where the savings would come from. Perhaps I may refer to some extracts. The noble Baroness maintains that many of the pupils will stay on anyway in the independent schools and that those schools are confident that they will be able to fill the places previously occupied by pupils on the assisted places scheme with fee paying pupils. In other words, the noble Baroness is saying that they will get the savings and will do so by imposing the cost on the independent sector—a cost that was borne by the state.

The noble Baroness further claims that if phasing out the assisted places scheme does lead to a marginal increase in the number of pupils in the maintained sector, that increase is certain to be less than the number of surplus places in each and every LEA across the country. She says that LEAs, with the notice that they have, should have the ability to make appropriate arrangements to accommodate any additional pupils. In other words, the Minister has not moved any further from her original position; namely, that there are 800,000 surplus places and, therefore, the pupils can he absorbed at, as she puts it, "no extra cost".

This group of amendments covers not only England. As the noble Baroness will notice, it also covers Scotland. I have tabled amendments to Clause 5. It seems that the position in Scotland is somewhat different. A very similar scheme exists there, but obviously a different Minister—a Scottish Minister—deals with it. We have heard from Mr. Brian Wilson; indeed, I have an exclusive article from the Scotsman, although I regret to say that I have forgotten its date. However, Mr. Wilson has made remarks to the effect that it will not be possible to restrict primary classes to 30 and that there will not be sufficient money from the abolition of the scheme in Scotland to cover the extra costs of reducing class sizes. When the Minister comes to reply—no doubt some of my noble friends will wish to pass some comments—I hope that she will comment on what her honourable friend in the Scottish Office has been saying in Scotland about the effect of the abolition of the assisted places scheme and how that sacrifice fails to cut class sizes.

I have one further point to make. The Bill is designed not only to abolish the assisted places scheme but also to reduce class sizes. Obviously, if one wishes to reduce class sizes, it is most important to have sufficient teachers so to do. Indeed, one cannot reduce class sizes unless there are sufficient teachers. We heard only recently that there are some fairly major problems with teacher recruitment. Therefore, can the Minister say how many new teachers will be required to reduce class sizes in the three years that the Government are talking about for children aged five, six and seven? Can she also tell the Committee what are the current shortfalls in recruitment? Moreover, if there are such shortfalls, where are we to find the extra teachers, not only for reducing class sizes in primary schools but also for the other areas where there are shortages?

I hope very much that the Minister will be able to give us slightly more satisfactory answers on the issue of savings than we received either on Second Reading or in subsequent correspondence. Alternatively, perhaps the noble Baroness will give us the answers to questions raised by my right honourable and honourable friends in another place. As I said, I have no intention at this stage of pressing this group of amendments. However, the answers that the Minister gives will certainly influence our decisions about how we take these matters forward at later stages. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

I wish to speak to Amendment No. 22, which is one of those now being discussed as it forms part of the grouping. That amendment to Clause 5, which deals with Scotland, would have a similar effect to Amendment No. 1; that is to say, postponement. There are especially cogent reasons for postponement in Scotland. On Second Reading, the noble Baroness told us that there would be a White Paper early in July. Indeed, on 7th July the White Paper was published and the noble Baroness repeated a Statement on it which was made in another place.

There was much advance publicity for the White Paper in the press and the impression was given that it would apply to the whole of Britain. I managed to obtain a copy just before the noble Baroness repeated the Statement. I could see at a glance that there was nothing in the White Paper—or, indeed, in the Statement—which had anything to do with Scotland. In fact, it is confined to England or to England and Wales. I asked the noble Baroness whether a White Paper for Scotland would be issued and when. She kindly said that she would write to me on the matter. That was only three days ago, so I am not complaining that I have not yet received her letter. However, the same day, the junior Minister at the Scottish Office dealing with education, the honourable gentleman Mr. Brian Wilson, gave a press conference lasting 45 minutes at the same time as the White Paper was published.

On Second Reading, the Minister told us that the White Paper was to be published and described it as a wide-ranging document. She said that there would be plenty of time to debate it. Not, apparently, in Scotland, and for Scottish parliamentarians. It did not range wide enough even to touch on Scotland. On Tuesday, headlines in the Scottish press ran, "Scotland's schools miss out", and: Better schools for all, apart from Scotland". I was not the only person to feel that that had not been well handled.

Apparently no White Paper or document for discussion will appear in Scotland in the foreseeable future. A press conference is not equivalent to a public parliamentary document. It is totally inadequate. I am sure that my noble friends feel the same about it.

A further reason why postponement in Scotland is even more necessary is that, when the Bill was published, a press notice issued on 23rd May by the Department for Education and Employment stated that savings would amount to some £100 million by 2000. That was repeated by the Minister on Second Reading. Did that figure include Scotland? No one seems to know. I hope that we shall receive an answer today.

It is important to know, because of a decision reported in the Scottish press and referred to by my noble friend Lord Henley. I can give him the date. It was 2nd July—Wednesday of last week. Again, the report was that Scottish Office Ministers had stated that not enough money would be raised in Scotland from scrapping the assisted places scheme to enable the manifesto commitment to reduce primary school classes to be carried out. The headline in The Scotsman read: Assisted place sacrifice fails to cut classes". The word "sacrifice" is significant. The assisted places scheme is widely well regarded in Scotland. Will a Minister confirm or comment on the point? I hope that the noble Baroness will today, because I do not see the Scottish Office Minister here. If reports are correct, then that is a cogent argument for at least postponing the proposals for Scotland. Indeed, during the pause, it might be found that the best course would be to keep the assisted places for Scotland after all.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I have one or two further questions that I would like to ask. I was unable to be present at Second Reading. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy made a number of excellent points about the plans for the assisted places scheme in Scotland. He has made further points which, had he not made them, I would have made myself.

The Government intend removing from Scottish young people the opportunity to take up about 3,500 assisted places. It is essential that we receive answers to the questions, but unfortunately there is not only no Scottish Office Minister in the House, I see not one Scottish Peer on the Benches opposite.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

Perhaps the noble Baroness—

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

The noble Baroness has just appeared, and I am very glad to see her. Scottish Peers have been drifting in as I have been speaking. That is excellent, because they may be able to assist me. Amendments Nos. 22, 24 to 26 and 28 relate to Clause 5. They have roughly the same effect on the scheme as those in other clauses. What is going on in relation to the assisted place scheme in Scotland is, to say the least, surprising. I am delighted to see that the Scottish Office Minister has now appeared. That is excellent news, because he is no doubt well-briefed on the matter.

I first suspected that all was not well with the Government's plans when I asked a Written Question on 5th June, which, given the Government's promises during the election campaign, I imagined would be easy to answer. I asked what the Government expected to save each year from bringing the assisted places scheme to an end; what it would cost per annum to reduce class sizes to 30 and fewer. That was not an unreasonable question. I waited for 13 days, almost the maximum period, to receive the reply. Then I was not given replies to the question that I had asked. I was told that the Government's expenditure plans did not take account of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme, but just the broad sums that were in the plan for the present scheme as it is.

I was told how many children were in classes of over 30 and how many classes of over 30 there were. I was told that it was not possible to calculate the annual cost of reducing those classes to 30 or fewer because the figures were not available. Clearly, at that point the Government did not know what they would require to reduce the classes, and, consequently, whether the savings from the assisted places scheme would be enough.

Since then, my suspicions have been somewhat enhanced, because we have heard, as my noble friend Lord Campbell said, that the Government do not intend to legislate to reduce class sizes because there would not be enough money. The education press in Scotland suggests that the Educational Institute of Scotland, which is the teacher union to which most teachers belong, and the local authorities are blocking such a move to reduce class sizes in that way. I do not know whether that is true. It may well be, because since the Government came to power even more important matters have already been reneged upon. We understand that that is because of teacher and local authority objections.

The implementation of the curriculum for 16 to 18 year-olds which is so important, and which is known as Higher Still, and eagerly awaited by everyone in Scotland has been postponed for yet another year. So it will not happen for another two years. That is unfortunate. The plans for the compulsory appraisal of teachers have also been abandoned. We know that the teacher unions and the local authorities have told the Government that they just cannot see a way of implementing them. It may well be that the problem of reducing class sizes is meeting the same kind of difficulty. I ask the Minister whether it is true that the Government are breaking their promise on the question of reducing class sizes to 30 or less in Scotland? Is it the case that the Bill's financial memorandum, bearing in mind that it is a Great Britain Bill for England, Wales and Scotland, does not apply any more?

If so, are the Government going to proceed with removing the assisted places scheme in Scotland? If they are not going to use the money in that way, the scheme must be going simply out of prejudice, and prejudice about this scheme in Scotland is singularly unfortunate because polls have shown that it is well supported by a substantial majority of people in Scotland. There is considerable regret that this particular opportunity for young people in Scotland is to be removed.

I support this amendment because, obviously, postponement of the scheme would allow the Government to sort out the confusion into which they have fallen in Scotland and would enable them to produce a scheme which would meet the intentions which are expressed in the financial memorandum.

4 p.m.

Lord Peston

I hope it is in order for someone who is not a Scot to take part in debating this Bill.

Lord Henley

I am not a Scot.

Lord Peston

I hope that it is in order for me to debate the Bill, particularly the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who is the main Opposition spokesman on these matters. I listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, and I have read the speech of his noble friend Lord Skidelsky on Second Reading. I was intrigued and extremely puzzled both by the original speech and by what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, now has to say, because it seemed to me to lack one crucial element which one would usually require in your Lordships' House; namely, an element of logicality.

The noble Lord seemed to be arguing, as did his noble friend, that there would be no savings from abolishing the assisted places scheme. I considered that and then I thought, if they can believe that, they must also believe that the scheme costs nothing, that there are simply no net costs in having the assisted places scheme. If one reflects upon that, what they would then be saying is that my noble friend the Minister could, by chance, get up—I take it that she is not going to do so—and say, "We are going to extend the assisted places scheme by 50,000 places and, of course, we do not have to worry about that and I do not even have to inform the Chancellor of the Exchequer because it will not cost anything". One only has to make that point to realise how preposterous it is. The assisted places scheme costs what the assisted places scheme costs, and it went into the public accounts costing that much.

I am sorry that the noble Lord referred to it as mean, nasty and envious to go against it. I thought that the Bill was rather mean, nasty and envious when it came in, as did several of my noble friends. It was not a Bill that we supported. I also believe that my noble friend the Minister and the Secretary of State are incredibly generous because they did not do what someone like me would have done; namely, abolish the scheme forthwith; they are going to go on spending hundreds of millions of pounds on this scheme for the next few years. I certainly do not mind being thought of as mean and nasty; it is my stock-in-trade, but the notion that my noble friend is being mean and nasty in any way is absurd. This is a use of public money—transferring public money from expenditure in the maintained system to expenditure in the fee paying system. That is what it is, and the Government have now announced that they will reverse it.

Noble Lords opposite may disagree with that and I do not blame them for doing so. It seems to me just as reasonable for them to disagree with that as it was for us to have disagreed with what they did in the first place. That is the nature of disagreement. But for them then to demand—my noble friend will no doubt respond to their demand because she is that type of person; she has a mission to explain, as I have—that she takes them through this in enormous detail is absurd. The amendments are ridiculous to start with. There is absolutely no doubt that this scheme costs those sums of money.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

What are the figures?

Lord Peston

At the current rate it will be getting on for over £200 million by the end of the century. One hundred and fifty million pounds was the sum left out as a result of the phasing process. There will still be some left after that.

The scheme is costing that much, and the way to check is to look in the public accounts, where you will see these figures. The fact remains that this Bill very generously eases out the assisted places scheme rather more slowly than some of us would like but, out of sheer loyalty to my noble friend, I support her and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on this. But to suggest that there are no savings, to suggest that all this scheme does is simply transfer money that would have been spent in the public sector to be spent in the private sector with no net costs to the system just does not stand up for one minute. Yet that is precisely the view that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, was putting forward. More to the point, that is the point his noble friend was advancing.

I do not see why we are wasting any time on these amendments. It is an absurd waste of the very valuable time of your Lordships' House.

Lord Tope

I do not want to waste any more of your Lordships' time on this, nor do I want to follow the particularly Scottish points that were being made, except to marvel at the ability of the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, to conjure up Scottish Labour Peers and even a Minister before our very eyes as she spoke. That is an ability I certainly envy.

I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for making clear when introducing the amendments that they are simply probing amendments on which he does not intend at this stage to press for a Vote. I must confess that, until he had said that, I had harboured the unworthy thought that possibly these amendments were intended to delay the implementation of the Bill simply because they viewed it as a mean and nasty Bill and were opposed to it.

As I said at Second Reading, we wholly share the aspirations of the Government, subject to some details, as regards this Bill. We have always opposed the assisted places scheme. We wish to see it phased out as quickly as possible, consistent with commitments that have been given. Similarly, to the extent that the phasing out of the assisted places scheme would help in the reduction of class sizes in infant schools, so, too, we support that enthusiastically. Indeed, it is well known that my party would have wished to go rather further and rather faster than that. We wholly support the intentions of the Bill, both as they appear in the Bill itself and as stated in the preamble.

However, we share the doubts that have been expressed both in your Lordships' House and elsewhere about the extent to which the phasing out of the assisted places scheme will actually contribute to the very laudable objective of reducing class sizes. It is in the nature of things that the Government, in proposing this measure, are likely to maximise the savings likely to be achieved and the Opposition is likely to do the opposite and to maximise the costs involved in reducing class sizes.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and we will not know until it actually happens. We need to recognise that. Perhaps it is inevitable that the Liberal Democrats are somewhere in the middle. I suspect that the savings will not be as great as is claimed for them; I am sure that the costs will not be as great as some of those claiming that believe, but there are people who are perhaps more independent observers than some of us in this House who have grave doubts about whether the savings will be sufficient to meet the Government's commitments.

Doubts have been expressed by many, as has already been said today, and most recently by Mr. Brian Wilson. I was going to help the noble Lord, Lord Henley, by telling him that it appeared on 2nd July in The Scotsman. He too has said that it is very unlikely that the savings will be sufficient. I have noticed, I believe, from statements made by Ministers either on the record or off the record that they seem to have shifted their language towards saying that it will contribute towards the costs in reducing class sizes. I believe that is a more honest and realistic statement to make.

Lord Henley

Perhaps the noble Lord will give way. I will assist him. Ministers might have shifted in what they are saying on this, but the Bill itself has not. If the noble Lord looks at the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum he will see that it clearly says, The Bill's provisions will lead to savings which will be spent on reducing … class sizes".

Lord Tope

Perhaps it is not for me to explain what the Government mean in their Bill. I am sure that the Minister, when she replies, will do that more adequately than I can. I believe that it is the intention of the Bill that it will do as it says in the preamble and, to the extent that the savings are made, that is what they will be used for. I assume that is what it means, but it is perhaps not for me to say.

I do not want to delay your Lordships today. My party wishes this Bill well, subject to some small but important details. We will not be supporting measures designed overtly or otherwise to delay its passage or to delay its implementation, but I will certainly listen carefully to the reply that is given to the questions that have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and others because, to some extent, perhaps for different reasons and different motives, I share those concerns.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

You will never know how greatly relieved I was to hear the noble Lord, Lord Henley, give the assurance that he does not wish to delay the implementation of this Bill for a period of two years.

We have annually debated the background to this Bill. We have looked at the assisted places scheme every year. We have trotted out the same old arguments until we all know them backwards. But the information and assurances which the noble Lord asked for will not take two years, two months or two hours to supply.

The letters to which the noble Lord referred seem to me to make it perfectly clear that the savings achieved by phasing out the assisted places scheme will result in phasing in smaller class sizes, as my noble friend Lord Peston made perfectly clear.

I wish to make three straightforward points in favour of bringing in this Bill as smoothly and as rapidly as possible. It seems to me that it cannot possibly be argued that the date or details of implementation come as any surprise to any Member of your Lordships' Committee. It has been our official policy since the assisted places scheme was introduced. Neither the schools nor the parents need any further period of notice or information. It was and is the first of the Labour Party's five pledges in the manifesto. Nobody could be given greater warning than that.

What is more, outside this Chamber I do not sense any passionate desire from the people concerned most closely for vast amounts of extra information and details down to the last tuppence ha'penny of what will be done where.

Not long before the general election I was invited to a great and famous independent secondary school in this country, which I shall forbear to name, to talk to a conference of some 40 independent prep-school headmasters. They were headmasters, not head teachers. Unfortunately, not one female, lady, woman, was in the position of being in charge of an independent preparatory school and prepared to come to that conference.

I prepared myself to address those gentlemen and to take their questions. They asked me many, many questions. None was concerned with the assisted places scheme. They may not have approved of it but they were in absolutely no doubt what it was about: how it worked; how it affected them; and what they needed to do about it.

Secondly, it cannot possibly be argued that that would be a better scheme if we had any form of delay or reconsideration or that it needs any greater degree of time to perfect. Always there will be disputes about exact numbers and figures. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, we shall have to work out the very fine detail as we go along because the thing will not stand still. Numbers and figures will change. But we cannot leave it. We cannot say, "We will give it another year or so just to settle down and see if we can bring it in then". We cannot say with Shakespeare's Viola: Oh Time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me t'untie". It is up to the Opposition to demonstrate that additional time would allow any specific improvements to be made or that additional time in even considering this Bill would allow us to bring it to a further degree of perfection. So far, the Opposition have failed singularly to convince me that that is so.

Thirdly, it is impossible to argue that the implementation of this scheme as it is at present put forward will force good schools to close or to suffer cruel and unnatural financial punishment. As I see it, the key statistic is that the average of assisted places for participating schools is about 14 per cent. Many APS schools claim that they are over-subscribed in any event. The APS was started to assist the intellectually able children of poor parents and not to subsidise independent schools. Those schools which are now claiming hardship, if they are—and I believe that some do—may be likened to the seven foolish virgins at the marriage ceremony recorded in the Gospels who failed to get oil for their lamps in advance. When the bridegroom came they were locked out. To them I can only say: it is too late now; the bridegroom came on 1st May.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

With this group of amendments, noble Lords opposite seek to delay the effect of the Bill's provisions. I have listened carefully to the arguments put forward about the savings or lack of savings, as is claimed by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and other Members of the Committee on the Opposition Benches. I am afraid that I cannot see any reason to delay the start of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme because of the questions which are raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, raised a number of questions about Scotland, some of which were about the White Paper on schools which was published earlier this week. It would make more sense for questions about the White Paper in Scotland to be answered when we reach Clause 5, which is the clause which relates to Scotland, rather than to discuss that matter with these amendments which are concerned with delaying the Bill.

However, I can explain one rather more specific point which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, and which relates more directly to the assisted places scheme. As my right honourable friend made clear in another place earlier this week, the savings from the assisted places scheme in England, Wales and Scotland will be pooled. Funding will then be distributed in support of our commitment to reduce class sizes. Therefore, our commitment applies equally to children in infant classes across the United Kingdom. Funding will be available to meet our pledge in Scotland in a similar way to which it is to be met in England. I hope that that is helpful and explains the position.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

While the noble Baroness is on that point, is she telling us that what the Minister was reported to have said will not mean a reduction in class sizes in that way? Is that not the case?

Baroness Blackstone

I am not sure that I entirely follow the noble Baroness's question. Perhaps I can make it clear that savings from the assisted places scheme in Scotland will not deliver enough to reduce class sizes. We have already made that clear. However, we intend to pool the savings that are made in England and Wales so that those savings can be distributed in order to fulfil our pledge on class sizes across England, Scotland and Wales. I hope that that is now clear.

I turn now to the question of savings which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. That seems to be his favourite subject. He quoted the previous Government's estimate of a differential between the cost of an assisted place and a maintained sector place at £12,200. But the cost differential for 1997–98 will show a significant increase in the differential. Provisionally we expect the differential to be 40 per cent. I regret that the noble Lord is working from out-of-date information.

I am very grateful for the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Peston on this matter.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

Can the Minister explain the differential between the cost of the assisted places scheme per person and the sixth form college cost?

Baroness Blackstone

I cannot give a precise figure on the differential between an assisted places scheme in a sixth form and an assisted places scheme in a maintained school, which is the relevant comparison. It would not be relevant to compare the overall cost of an assisted places scheme with the cost of a place in the sixth form: that would be a ludicrous comparison, if I may say so.

The average cost of an assisted places scheme place in 1997–98 will be £4,100 per annum. That is 47 per cent. more than the standard spending assessment in the state sector. There is clearly a very substantial difference between the costs and therefore there must be savings, and very considerable savings, to be made from abolishing the scheme.

I remind Members of the Committee opposite that the former government spent over £1 billion on the scheme. We believe that spending is much better directed at educating young children and improving their education by reducing class sizes in state schools. As we have stated, we are concerned to help the many rather than to concentrate this money on a very small number of pupils.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, raised the issue of class sizes and numbers of teachers. As the White Paper published earlier this week explained, there will be a programme of consultations with local education authorities and schools on how best to meet their commitment to reduce infant class sizes over time, including the precise mechanisms for channelling and distributing the funds released by phasing out the assisted places scheme. The necessary legislation will be brought before noble Lords in due course, as I made clear on another occasion.

The precise numbers and costs of the teachers and of the other provisions required to enable reduction of class sizes will depend on the outcome of the consultations with the local education authorities and schools. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, was correct in stating that at this stage we cannot be 100 per cent. precise about the details of the costs that will be involved in fulfilling this pledge. However, I can confirm—and I stand by the figures which I set out in the letter I sent to the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky—that approximately £100 million of savings will be available by the year 2000 and £100 million per annum thereafter. That figure of £100 million a year is equivalent to 4,000 teacher years. That is a lot of teacher years which will help us fulfil the very important pledge that we made to the electorate. We are completely confident that these sums will be adequate to reach the class size target by the end of this Parliament.

We have consistently opposed the assisted places scheme, year after year after year, ever since its inception in 1981. We made clear then that when in office we would move quickly to end the subsidies it provides to schools. Deferring implementation for three years, as entailed by the amendments, is completely unnecessary and would delay the delivery of that pledge. Moreover, we are honouring the September 1997 intake, and therefore schools will have an extra year in which to plan for life without a subsidised entry. Clearly, many schools have been, very sensibly, preparing for the loss of the assisted places scheme for some time. If they had not done so, frankly they would have been very foolish because we have signalled on many occasions our intention in that regard.

I do not always believe what I read in the newspapers, but press reports tell us that those schools have plans to run schemes of their own and to fill the remaining places with fee paying pupils. We look forward to discovering whether the press reports are accurate.

The Bill demonstrates our priorities as set out in our manifesto. To delay this pledge would affect the fulfilment of our promise and prevent us from keeping our word with the electorate. We do not intend to break our word with the electorate.

The party opposite left us with a legacy of 440,000 pupils in overcrowded infant classes. Frankly, that is not a good legacy. Recent data show that that figure will soon reach 480,000. At that rate, delaying the provisions by three years would mean over 600,000 pupils in classes of over 30. It is simply unacceptable for that figure to rise. That is why we are acting now.

Therefore I give no apology for moving swiftly. We would be criticised if we were to delay the implementation of our pledge. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, stated that he would not press these amendments, for which I am very grateful. I have spelt out the reasons why his argument about lack of savings does not stand up. In the light of that, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.

Lord Campbell of Croy

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments in regard to the matters I raised concerning Scotland. I sympathise with her for having to deal with Scotland. I am pleased to see the Scottish Minister in his place, but he was not present when I spoke, and no doubt the noble Baroness will pass on the points I made.

I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, because he is the Scottish Office Minister dealing with devolution, and, I imagine, is fully occupied outside this House dealing with all the disagreements and troubles in the preparation of a White Paper about which the media keep us informed.

The noble Baroness stated that we could discuss the Scottish points when we reach Clause 5, including the White Paper, and I am perfectly happy about that. However, my point is that there is no Scottish White Paper, and the Scottish Office Minister made it clear that there would not be one. The press conference he gave was not a substitute for a White Paper.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, made an interesting statement about his attendance at a head teachers' conference. He said that the subject of assisted places had not arisen. I was invited as a guest to the United Kingdom headmasters' conference in 1976, 1977 and 1978, and to the United Kingdom preparatory headmasters' conference which used to take place every four years. The question of assisted places schemes, north and south of the Border, was one of the major subjects discussed. I was chairman of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools and we were busy preparing an assisted places scheme for Scotland which was accepted and included in the Scottish Bill.

That was the experience then. Once the assisted places schemes were operating head teachers seemed to be fairly happy with them. Therefore I can understand that the matter would not have been discussed at later conferences. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, that the conferences in the 1970s had different interests and concerns. I look forward to hearing more when we discuss Clause 5 which deals with Scotland. Amendment No. 22 is nearly the same as the amendment we are discussing now. In this Chamber the groupings are normally drawn up by agreement. It makes sense that a matter which is to apply to Scotland, England and Wales should be discussed in the same debate.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I appreciate that the noble Baroness has probably prepared excellent replies to Clause 5. However, the problems with the airlines at the moment mean that I may have to leave before we reach that clause and therefore I am probably speaking a little more about Scotland at this stage than I should.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, said that schools have known about this matter for a long time. I refer him to a Scottish school. Before that school had to become independent it had 25 per cent. local authority places and 75 per cent. fee paying places. That school, in a rural area not far from where I live, has managed to survive. I know the school well. Practically all its pupils are local. Out of a roll of 530, it has 173 assisted places. The school expects to lose at least 100 pupils whose parents will not be able to pay the full fees when the scheme is phased out. That school is under threat. Its quality will alter. Places will have to be found in the local secondary school. The distances involved in that area mean there is no other alternative. That process will cost money. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, said that some of the figures which had been mentioned were complete nonsense and that because local authority costs were so much lower than those of the assisted places savings were bound to be made.

Lord Peston

I interrupt the noble Baroness because she does not seem to understand what I said. Her noble friend said that abolishing the scheme would save no money. I simply pointed out to him that I found that slightly difficult to comprehend. Indeed, that clashes with what the noble Baroness herself has just said about the damage that abolishing the scheme would cause to certain schools. If no money is involved here what is anyone complaining about? The scheme will save the amount of money that my right honourable friend and my noble friend the Minister have said it will save. That is the point I was making.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I mention other figures to the noble Lord. I live near the city of Dundee. At the private, fee paying Dundee High School the average cost for a day pupil is £4,300 a year. The average cost for a pupil in the state system across Scotland is £2,700. Therefore, the cost per pupil in the Dundee High School is £1,600 higher. However, that figure includes all the capital expenditure. The average figure for Scotland of £2,700 does not include capital expenditure. Capital expenditure is a large element in the funding of education in the state system.

In the city of Dundee in the past year or two, £8 million has been spent on an extension to one school and £6 million on an extension to another. Capital expenditure is of that order in the state system. That is not the case with all state schools all the time but there is a great deal of money tied up in capital expenditure. That must be allowed for in the fees charged in the private sector. One cannot calculate the capital element in the public sector. Therefore, the noble Lord's comparison is not a proper one.

Lord Henley

I do not know whether the noble Baroness wishes to respond to some of those points. I remind her that it is Committee stage and therefore she is entirely at liberty to respond should she so wish. I wish to make a few remarks before this debate comes to an end. I did not find the response of the noble Baroness satisfactory. However, there was at least one thing on which I could agree with both the noble Baroness and her noble friend Lord Morris; namely, when they said this had been a longstanding policy of the party opposite—which is now the Government—and that they had stuck to this policy for some 18 years. I put a question to the noble Lord, Lord Morris. What other policies have they managed to stick to for 18 years? I suspect they will be few indeed. Therefore, we must at least congratulate them on that fact. Here is some continuity and stability in the party opposite.

The noble Baroness complained that I had something of an obsession with the savings in this Bill. The noble Baroness and her noble friends have only themselves to blame for that obsession. For some quite extraordinary reason that I simply do not understand—it is the weirdest bit of drafting I have ever come across—they have linked one part of the Bill on the abolition of assisted places with some other good that they wish to achieve. It is a good that I think we can all generally support. They have linked the two in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum but then have not mentioned that in the Bill. The Bill is purely about the abolition of the assisted places scheme. It is perfectly legitimate for the Opposition—if there is more than one opposition party, and sometimes I have considerable doubts when I listen to the comments from the party opposite which after all at the time of the election was telling us there was not even a cigarette paper's difference between the policies that we were espousing and the policies of the party opposite, and now we seem to be hearing—

Lord Tope

I could not possibly let that pass; namely, that at any time I or any other member of our education team claimed that there was not a cigarette paper's difference between us. I think I recall the noble Lord, Lord Morris, making a comment to that effect, but that is up to him and his party.

Lord Henley

I hope I may correct the noble Lord. I think it was the leader of his party who during the election used that very expression about there not being a cigarette paper's difference between the Conservative Party's policies and those of the Labour party. Now we seem to find that new Labour and new Liberals are all in bed together. The noble Lord should ask the leader of his party whether he was misleading the electorate at the time he implied that our policies were the same as those of the party opposite.

That said, the question of savings is an important one. I do not think that the noble Baroness has adequately addressed those points. I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that the assisted places scheme costs money. However, one must also accept that if this scheme is to be wound up—I appreciate that we are talking about a relatively small number of pupils in relation to education as a whole—a number of extra pupils will have to attend other schools and there will be some extra cost because of the way that schools are funded on a per pupil basis. That point was not addressed by the noble Baroness.

Nor did she address the point that the difference in costs between maintained sector pupils and assisted places pupils is not as great as all that because one has to take into account capital costs. I could have gone on and talked about LEA overheads. Of the vast amount of money that we make available to schools, how much gets through to the schools themselves? We all know that that is a difficult calculation and it varies from LEA to LEA. However, one could make a strong case that much more of it should go directly to the schools. In the case of the assisted places scheme, every single penny goes to that scheme.

I have to say that I do not think that the points we have put forward have been adequately addressed. I will have to consider very carefully between now and the next stage exactly what kind of amendments I should table. I appreciate that this is a rather complicated matter and that is why I had to put down amendments that sought to delay the Bill, something which, as I have made clear to the noble Baroness, I do not wish to pursue at this stage because within the Bill itself there is very little about where the money is going. We only find that in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum.

Lord Dormand of Easington

This is the second time in his wind-up that the noble Lord has mentioned about the Bill not including what the money is for. He has just contradicted himself. I should like to help to clarify the situation by saying that as I understand it the Bill does not mention this matter. In that respect I think he is correct but, in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum which, as he knows, is an essential part of the Bill, there are these words: The Bill's provisions will lead to savings which will be spent on reducing infant class sizes in the maintained sector". Surely he will agree that it could not be plainer than that.

Lord Henley

That is the very point that I am trying to make. I was trying to offer advice to the Government as to how to draft Bills. I find it quite extraordinary that they have put this purpose into the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum, and, as they have done so, I and my noble friends think it is a legitimate matter to pursue and it is one which we shall continue to pursue. My advice to them is that when drafting the Bill, they should have left that bit out. They can make the point in Second Reading speeches, but to put it in seems quite extraordinary. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is nodding, so perhaps I have agreement on that minor drafting point.

Lord Peston

No, I was not agreeing with that. I was agreeing that it seemed to be perfectly legitimate for the noble Lord to raise these questions, as I believe very strongly that virtually anything—even the hijacking of the whole debate by the Scots in the end—is legitimate. So I really hope that the noble Lord does not say that I disagree with his raising these matters, because that is not so.

Lord Henley

I have to say that my noble friend hijacked it for the Scots because half the amendments in this particular group relate to Clause 5 and to Scotland. I think it was a perfectly legitimate act (and I hope the noble Lord accepts that it was a perfectly legitimate act) to raise those two particularly difficult Scottish points.

As I said, I do not think that we have received satisfactory answers. I will have to consider very carefully what kind of amendments we do put down at a later stage because I can assure the noble Baroness that this whole question of the savings and how great they will be is not one that will go away. As I gave an assurance earlier, at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Hoyle

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.